Z is for Zani

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

A zani is one of the oldest stock characters from the Commedia dell Arte from the 16th century and beyond. Alternative spellings include zanni and zuan, and the word is a variant of the Venetian name Gianni. Travelling commedia troupes performed comedic routines lampooning society. Besides the zani, stock characters included Doctore, a miser, a soldier, a harlot, a lady, and a pair of lovers. The men wore elaborate, leather masks.

A zani was a servant. He could be cunning, such as Mezzettino or Brighella, or he could be innocent and silly like Arlecchino or Pulcinella. He wore a long-nosed mask and contributed to the confusion of the improvised theatrical experiences. As an everyman, zani won favor with crowds. They were known as emotional, hungry, and sometimes lusty. The cunning zani knew how to cheat and trick their masters. The silly zani lived in the moment and were faithful. Zani were usually versed in acrobatics and sight gags. Zani evolved into clowns, including the popular Harlequin.

Commedia routines were usually improvised series of “lazzi” (gags or jokes) preformed on streets for the entertainment of crowds. Sometimes the troupe of performers found favor and performed for wealthier patrons. Because of the improvised nature of the performances, few records of their skits remain. However, the earliest includes a zani as a servant of the miserly stock character, Pantalone.

The English word “zany” (meaning comical, ludicrous, and strange) derives from this clownish character.

For a modern interpretation of the zani, watch Rowan Atkinson’s “Black Adder” series. Black Adder showed cunning, while Baldric possessed loyalty and perpetual hunger. In the later episodes, the Adder family fortunes failed, leaving the crafty man and his companion as servants.

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